On March 23, 1989, Profs. Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons held a press conference … not the usual manner of publishing an experimental result. Their press release opened,
Two scientists have successfully created a sustained nuclear fusion reaction at room temperature in a chemistry laboratory at the University of Utah. The breakthrough means the world may someday rely on fusion for a clean virtually inexhaustible source of energy.
It took about two years of failed attempts to reproduce the experiment before scientists all over the world concluded that Pons and Fleischmann were crackpots, or maybe frauds, and declared “cold fusion” to be a hoax. After that it was toxic. No journal would publish articles on it, no research agencies would fund it, and no faculty could get tenure if they were associated with it. In short, by the end of 1991, field was dead.
A handful of die-hards, including a goodly helping of old-fashioned crackpots, soldiered on. To my mind, their reluctant leader is Prof. Peter Hagelstein of MIT, seemingly the last cold fusion investigator at a major North American research university. When it became clear that their research was truly blacklisted from all serious scientific journals, the die-hards founded The Journal of Condensed Matter Nuclear Science to continue their investigation.
They didn’t give up on their attempts to make the experiments reliable, trying every variation. Sometimes it worked, and they produced tremendous amount of energy. Usually, it didn’t. For 20 years, no one found a pattern, an explanation for why some cells made energy and some did nothing. It seemed like maybe shining a laser on the electrodes made your odds a little better, but that certainly wasn’t enough to convince a skeptic. The field remained toxic. But I have a confession to make, a confession I can make now that I’m not an academic scientist myself.
I think cold fusion is real.
What convinced me was Hagelstein et. al.’s 2010 paper, Terahertz difference frequency response of PdD in two-laser experiments. Specifically, this plot:
In this paper, the authors had the odd idea to shine two lasers on the Palladium-Deuterium electrode, at slightly different frequencies. The plot shows the excess power generated at various frequency differences. There are clear, sharp spikes at specific deltas. As the abstract notes,
The cell responded to three diﬀerence frequencies in the THz range at 8.2 THz, at 15.1 THz, and at 20.8 THz. The ﬁrst two of these frequencies can be associated with optical phonon frequencies of PdD with zero velocity. We examine the conjectures that the response at 20.8 THz is due to deuterium in vacancies in the gold coating, or due to hydrogen contamination.
I think this is an amazing result. It kind of makes sense, that cold fusion works by coupling to some sort of massive phonon mode, like the Mossbauer Effect, but the exact theory isn’t the important thing. The important thing is that if the observed heating responds to some invisible input parameter, then it can hardly be a hallucination of a motivated experimenter.
Of course, it’s possible that the plot is wrong. The data could be a total fabrication, or maybe random noise filtered through experimenter bias, like a Ouija board. Performing the former, or permitting the latter, would be a gross violation of scientific ethics. I’ve never met Prof. Hagelstein, but I trust his work enough to believe that this paper isn’t outright lies … and the only alternative I see is that there’s something real here, something desperately in need of further investigation.
It looks like I’m not alone. After 23 years of denying funding to cold fusion research as a matter of policy, the US Department of Energy’s ARPA-E funding agency has just begun accepting applications for research into “chemonuclear reactors” and “low-energy nuclear reactions” … fuzzy euphemisms that could easily include proper cold fusion among the $10 million in grants.
I hope they do.